The Mets have gone 27-4 this season and are on pace to win 100 games, thanks to an offense that leads MLB in runs scored and a pitching staff with the lowest ERA of any team in baseball. They’re off to their best start since 1984 – when they won 116 regular season games before going all the way to the World Series.
Buck Showalter has been a manager for the New York Mets since 2015. He has had mixed success, but in 2018 he’s managed to take them to a World Series.
Steve Cohen, the owner of the New York Mets, is an enthusiastic art collector, with a collection of Picasso, Doig, and other artists estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. One of his favorite items, though, is a spherical baseball that rolled between Bill Buckner’s legs to close Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, giving the Mets their biggest triumph ever.
The ball had previously been sold, and when it became available in 2012, Cohen was advised by a business colleague that it would likely cost between $100,000 and $150,000, as he recounted to SNY last year. Cohen remembers replying, “All right, I’ll do it.” “It’s a historic moment for the Met. ‘Purchase it.’”
Cohen was given a bargain, and it wasn’t until later that he inquired about the final price, which turned out to be $410,000. He remembers being dissatisfied with it at the time.
But in the end, Steve Cohen got precisely what he wanted, and an episode that mirrored the way he’ll operate his baseball club in the future. Buck Showalter was recruited after one managerial candidate met all of the criteria for the best possible Mets job — an experienced manager who would have immediate credibility with players, was regarded a great strategist, and had managed in New York. A win-now manager overseeing a win-now team run by a win-now owner.
When Cohen bought the Mets, he said he expected to win the World Series in three to five years. After a disastrous first year (the 2021 season), Cohen has doubled down, paying a record price ($130 million over three years) for future Hall of Fame pitcher Max Scherzer. Last year, the Mets’ clubhouse culture was seen as a concern, so Cohen’s new general manager paid a premium for Eduardo Escobar and Mark Canha, two players recognized for their ability to influence teammates. The Mets needed a center fielder, so Cohen approved the signing of Starling Marte, the best available center fielder, to a four-year, $78 million deal.
According to rival executives, Showalter’s hire would cost the organization between $3 million and $5 million per year, which is three to five times what the other finalists, Joe Espada and Matt Quatraro, might have earned as first-time major league managers.
Because of the significant risk that the Mets will face in 2022, any decision other than Showalter would have been risky. Cohen and Eppler’s greatest chance of winning now was to spend heavily this winter, but it might all go wrong. Ace Jacob deGrom hasn’t thrown since the middle of last season, and club president Sandy Alderson said he had a UCL sprain last summer, which deGrom later contradicted. Scherzer will be 38 in July, and his risk of injury is increasing year after year. Robinson Cano is 39 years old and was suspended for the whole 2017 season due to a PED violation. Marte, Canha, and Escobar are all towards the conclusion of their careers rather than the start.
And if injuries strike — particularly within that very talented but somewhat frail rotation — and the ’22 season turns out to be another disaster, Cohen and Eppler will have it a lot easier with Showalter at the helm. They would have set themselves up for an avalanche of second-guessing and criticism if they had passed on Showalter in favor of a newcomer in a difficult year.
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Eppler no longer has to be concerned about how his manager will handle queries regarding injuries now that he has Showalter. He doesn’t have to worry about Showalter’s reaction to a losing run or criticism on talk radio. Instead, Eppler can concentrate on team-building in the major leagues, upgrading the organization’s infrastructure, and filling a farm system that has been successfully safeguarded by Cohen’s investment this winter, since the Mets haven’t needed to sell prospects to improve.
And make no mistake: Showalter is regarded as an outstanding manager. Showalter, like Brewers manager Craig Counsell and former Giants manager Bruce Bochy, succeeds at keeping relievers fresh via controlled deployment. (Yes, he erred by not utilizing Zack Britton in a postseason game against the Blue Jays.)
Showalter is 65 years old and took over as manager in 1992, nearly a decade before clubs started to actively consider analytics. As a result, he has been labeled as Old School, as someone who is averse to the data supplied by front offices. This is incorrect: Anyone who worked with Showalter at ESPN — and I was one of them — understood that he was interested by stats, but that he also wanted them presented in the appropriate context. During his time with the Orioles, a young analyst led a discussion on catcher Matt Wieters’ perceived defensive inadequacies, portraying an image of a lousy catcher. Showalter defended Wieters with a series of rhetorical questions, as he often does.
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So, how were Wieters’ dreadful pitch-framing stats affected by his constant work with Ubaldo Jimenez, one of baseball’s most unstable pitchers, and Zack Britton, whose sinker moved so suddenly and so violently that it was almost difficult to frame?
What do the stats suggest about Wieters’ ability to settle a struggling rookie pitcher and guide him through tough situations?
What does having a leader at a key defensive position entail in terms of metrics?
Of course, given all of the factors involved, he countered that statistics alone couldn’t adequately quantify the worth of any player or choice. Showalter believed then, and still believes today, that the most successful use of statistics as a tool is in helping players understand how they may improve, a strategy that teams like Tampa Bay have perfected.
Showalter’s adoption of front-office proposals is likely to be collaborative, as it is in Cleveland with Terry Francona, who may occasionally ask for more time to execute a change in order to figure out the best way to deliver the new information or tweak to the players.
This is a legitimate request coming from a manager like Showalter, who has 20 years of experience in the major leagues. Pushing back and melding would be more challenging for a novice boss.
Espada and Quatraro are both so highly rated that they will almost certainly make it to the majors. But, regardless of the possibilities, Cohen understood the relic of management history he held at this moment.
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The “new york mets roster” is a team that has been struggling for the past few years. This season, however, they have found a win in their manager, Buck Showalter.
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